When is it okay to let your kids make bad choices?

Mothers of babies and toddlers are faced with all sorts of dilemmas (especially now in the age of social media). Do I breast feed or bottle feed? Do I cook my baby’s food or give her pre-made baby food? Do I let her cry it out or do I sleep with her? Do I home school or take her to traditional school? The options are endless and they cause new mothers (and fathers) a lot of stress. However, if you think about it, the decisions are all about what the parent thinks is right. The parent has all the control. As difficult as those decisions may seem at the time, the parent only has to worry about themselves getting it right … or maybe getting it wrong. But what happens when the child becomes a person? What happens when the child can make decisions for herself? What happens when her choices contradict your own ideologies? When is it okay to let your child make a bad decision?

My oldest child is 7, and he wants to drink Coke. Now this may not seem like a big deal to some people, but consider the source. I write a healthy eating blog. I pride myself on living a healthy life. I have been shoving vegetables down my kids’ throats since they were old enough to chew. I educate my children on the dangers of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial food coloring, processed foods, and fast food restaurants. Eating healthy is my thing. I DESPISE SODA. In fact, I have written blogs about my boundaries with my children, and one of my boundaries is “absolutely no soda under any circumstances.” That is my limit. I will make no concessions. But now my 7 year old wants to drink Coke.

Honestly I thought I had more time. I thought my child would rebel against me later in life. I thought I was in control. Even more comically, I was naive enough to believe that my children would never want to drink soda. After all, I had taught them better. I didn’t expose them to it or offer it to them on special occasions. And yet, here we are; my 7 year old wants to drink Coke.

I have pretty mature kids, and I think I’m doing a good job in the sense that they feel they can talk to me even if they know my position on a matter. So I didn’t catch my 7-year-old at a birthday party chugging a coke can and hoping I didn’t notice. On the contrary, very maturely, he approached me one day and said “Mom, I think I should be able to drink Coke. My friends drink it. Adults drink it. I just don’t understand why you won’t let me.” I explained my reasons: It’s full of sugar. It’s not good for you. It’s addictive. It can cause all sorts of health problems. As we went back and forth, I realized he simply didn’t care. His position was clear; he wanted to have the option to drink it.

I thought about this and realized I have two options:

  1. I can stick to my guns and say “NO! You may not drink Coke and that is my final answer. I am the parent; you are the child. I know better and you will do as I say.” My son will either obey me out of fear or he will drink coke behind my back.OR
  2. I can say “Fine. Do whatever you want. Drink Coke if you’d like.” At that point my son can drink Coke and he will either love it or hate it. He may become addicted or he may not.

Thinking about option 1 led me to the disturbing conclusion that by forcing him to obey me or not, he was still making a choice. Therein lies the rub. The time had come when my son had a choice—even if I tried to take it away. On the other hand, if I allowed him to do it, did I violate my own belief system? Was I giving in? Aren’t I supposed to parent? My mind wandered into the future and I suddenly became the parent of a teenager. Would letting him drink Coke mean I would let him try drugs in the future? After all, I consider coke to be as bad as drugs. Then I thought about the timing. Of course, at some point in his life, my child was going to make his own decisions. But when is that time? If I let him make his own decisions at 7 does that mean I am setting him up for failure, especially if I know his decision would be the wrong one? Wouldn’t a good parent try to make good decisions for their children as long as possible (like forever)?

And then there was the other thing—the personal thing—the shame in the game. What would other people think if they saw my son drinking coke? I write about healthy eating. I have publicly and openly shared my lifestyle choices and my parenting style. How embarrassing would it be for me if my kid was the one drinking Coke at a party—like the religious fanatic whose unwed, teenage daughter becomes pregnant in high school? It’s a tough pill to swallow that your kids would do something like that after you’ve worked so hard to teach them better.

So what did I decide? I decided that my son, at the tender age of 7, has taught me a great lesson about parenting and about humanity. My children are their own individual people. Humans are all different. We care about different things. We put weight on different things. We make different choices. Your children are no different. Sure they can look like you; they can imitate you and they are certainly predisposed to, but they are different; they will think differently, and sometimes, they will make different choices, even if you disagree with them. You may choose to let this embarrass you, you may choose to let it affect your relationship with them, or you may choose to accept them for who they are no matter what. That is ultimately your choice.

I soaked this in and I chose to let my child drink Coke. I broke my “under no circumstances rule.” I still set boundaries, because after all he is the child and I am the parent, but nonetheless, my original boundaries had now changed.

My new boundaries are as follows:

  1. You can drink Coke at birthday parties or special events.
  2. You must drink it in moderation. 1–2 small cups.
  3. We will always offer you an alternative like Perrier with lemon that you can choose to have instead.
  4. I will not buy Coke or have it available in my home.
  5. I will not drink Coke myself.
  6. I will continue to educate you about healthy eating.

 

Did I look into this too deeply? Maybe. Should I make such a big deal about my son having a cup of Coke? Probably not—but this is just the beginning. The little problems we encounter when they are young set us up to deal with the bigger problems that arise when they are older. As time goes on, parents are forced to change their boundaries, mend, bend, and adapt. No matter how rigid you are or how strict your beliefs, you will be challenged. It’s not fun. It may not seem fair. But it’s life.

This little issue helped me establish the kind of relationship I want to have with my sons. What do I want? I want my kids to trust me and tell me what they’re thinking. I want them to know I trust them. I want to have a mutually respectful relationship with them. I want to lead my life by example instead of telling them what they should be doing. I want to guide them as best I can. I want to educate them. I want to instill good values and morals in them. I want to keep them close. I want to know them.

I hope I will raise them as happy, successful, independent and good adults. I hope we will agree more often than not. But when we disagree, I hope to keep an open mind so that maybe the one learning will be me.

So when do we let our kids make bad choices? I guess the choice is up to you.

 

3 thoughts on “When is it okay to let your kids make bad choices?

  1. Hello Caroline,
    What a beautiful thoughtful mother you are. I am inspired by your willingness to be complex with your children.

    I wanted to tell you about a person named Ray Peat . Ray shows that it is not sugar that hurts our health but poly unsaturated fatty acids- oils seeds nuts. He was the first person to recommend coconut oil. We need sugar for our livers to work properly. Fruit being the best kind. Obesity and health problems are epidemic among children and yet every parent I know, in fact every person I know who stopped eating sugar has health problems. Mexican Coke is made with real sugar. That would be the best kind for your son. Also it comes in glass not cans or plastic which leak aluminum and plastic into the Coke. Perhaps if your son goes to a party he could take his own Mexican coke.

    I hope you will check Ray Peat out He has a website RayPeat.com that has pages and pages of articles all backed by scientific research.

    Perhaps that is the gift of your son wanting a Coke,,

    Much love to you and your family,
    Trebbie

    • Thank you very much Trebbie for your kind words and the reference to Ray Peat. I will absolutely explore his site and read his articles. We are always learning.

  2. Amazing, my friend. I was captivated by your blog from beginning to end. I love your reflection. You touched aspects (like the personal shame) that I never even recognized in my own experiences. You are an amazing mom and I know you will get all of your wants and more as a parent. I mean, look at you. You are already living them. Your boys are blessed to have you (and so am I).

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